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Read Any Good Nutrition Labels Lately?

By MARIAN BURROS - copyright 2004 The New York Times

When mandatory nutrition labeling for packaged foods became the law of the land in 1994, the government predicted that Americans would routinely use it and that it would improve their eating habits. Give the government credit for getting it half right. Even as the country gets fatter and fatter, people say they do look at the nutrition facts panel on packaged foods.

In a telephone survey of 554 adults nationwide by The New York Times, 85 percent of the respondents said they read the label closely some or all of the time. About 66 percent said they had used information to decide whether or not to buy something.

But follow-up interviews with some of those questioned in the poll, which was conducted on Oct. 12 and 13, indicate that people may concentrate on just one or two items on the label and ignore the rest. Twenty-five percent of those polled said the first thing they looked at was the amount of fat, 18 percent said calories and 10 percent said sugar. The survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Many people focus on nutrients that affect a health problem like diabetes or high blood pressure.

As someone with Type 2 diabetes, 68-year-old Stanton Taylor of Ogden, Utah, said he had been reading the nutrition facts panel ever since it became mandatory. "I'm very sensitive about sugar and carbs," he said. "Within the last year I had a session with a dietician, and I became a little more sensitive to carbs. I didn't recognize that certain types of carbs would readily convert to sugar. She made me more aware that certain carbs are more desirable, like things with fiber."

By simply cherry-picking from labels, consumers are not finding out enough about all the nutrients they need, said Dr. Jeanne P. Goldberg, a professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.

"My suspicion is that people take away nuggets of information," Dr. Goldberg said, "but it doesn't add up to a healthful diet."

Sometime, possibly before the year is out, the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for the label, plans to suggest new ways to make it more useful. The changes are based on recommendations made by the obesity report from the Institute of Medicine and the agency's own working group on obesity.

The F.D.A. said it wants to initiate a consumer education campaign, focusing on a "calories count" message. After years of promoting a low-fat diet, it is ready to emphasize a new, but actually very old and immutable scientific message: Those who consume more calories than they expend in energy will gain weight. There is no getting around the laws of thermodynamics.

Paul Fontaine, a 68-year-old engineer in Houston, said he and his wife were often shocked by the amount of calories in certain foods. "We're just at an age where we watch our weight," he said. "If you are eating without reading you wind up, instead of eating 1,300 or 1,400 calories a day, you eat 2,500 and at our age you just can't do that."

To emphasize the importance of calories the agency said it would like to make the calorie count more prominent on the label and add the percentage of calories per serving, though most of those interviewed after the Times survey said they did not find the percentages useful.

"I don't base what we are eating on percentages, because I've got three or four different-size people in my house," said Robin Postell, a 36-year-old mother of two in Houston, with a third on the way.

Mr. Fontaine of Houston was more dismissive of percentages: "You give people percentages and they don't know what you are talking about. I'm an engineer. Fine. But most people can't calculate."

The agency also said it plans to change the serving sizes to more realistically reflect the larger portions that most people eat. In addition it may authorize the use of health claims for foods that meet its definition of "reduced" and "low" calorie.

The nutrition facts label provides the serving size and calories per serving. It also includes the amount of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugar and protein in a serving, plus the percentage of the daily intake of each nutrient based on a healthy 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. This is called the percent daily value, designed to help consumers understand how the food fits into a healthy diet, though most women and some of the elderly cannot consume that many calories and maintain their weight. The percentage of vitamins A and C, calcium and iron are also included.

A few label users said they spend a lot of time poring over the nutrition labels and other information on packages. "I read them all the time," said Lois Williams of Chicora, Pa., who is 70. "It's just a habit, and it determines the purchase because of the calories. I generally go for light sugar. I double-check for the date on the box. Some packages are more difficult to understand than others, and some dates are confusing." Ms. Williams was among the 29 percent who said they read nutrition labels closely.

Tracy Wilson, who is 38 and lives in State College, Pa., was among the 56 percent of respondents who said they sometimes looked at the labels. "I don't need to read nutrition labels closely to know doughnuts are bad for me," Ms. Wilson said. "I just sort of know what would be good and what wouldn't."

Starting in 2006 the government will require labels to list the amount of trans fatty acids, fats that have been linked to cardiovascular disease.

Patricia Andrews, 60, of Duncan, Okla., said that she changed her brand of peanut butter because she saw on the label that the one she used had partially hydrogenated oil, the most common trans fat.

Respondents' income and education had little bearing on their attitudes, but interest in labels generally increased with age. "If I want food, I'll buy it," said Elisabeth Pietronigro, 22, of Westbury, N.Y. "I don't really care."

Linda Sowders, 55, of Sunland, Calif., wants to see what she is eating and looks to see how much sodium and how many calories it has, and the nutritional value.

Women were more likely to say they used the labels than men, perhaps because they do most of the grocery shopping. Janet Hill, 45, of Newport News, Va., for example, said she was particularly interested in sodium content — as were 9 percent of respondents — because her husband uses a lot of soy sauce. "Once in a while he may pick up a different kind of soy sauce, and I say, `Give me the bottle.' I look to see if he's getting a million grams or not. I let him know about that so now he's changed brands and gets light soy sauce."

Ms. Sowders not only wants to know what she is eating, she wants to know what she is feeding her grandchildren. "If I buy whole-wheat bread, and one bread has more sugar in it or more salt, I'll buy the one with less sugar and less salt," she said.

None of the people interviewed, even those who said they looked for calories, said they were dieting, even Dextricia Vaught of Omaha, who reads labels more closely than most. "Most of the time I look at ingredients and then at calories and then the amount of salt and sugar," said Ms. Vaught, who is 33 and soon to be a mother. "I don't diet because I read labels, and so I'm conscious of what I eat. I just try to maintain proper balance in my nutrition all the time."

Only 8 percent of those surveyed said they looked at carbohydrates first. So much for the low-carb fad. Still, the F.D.A. plans to describe the term low-carb on labels.

But it will be many months before any of the label changes appear. Dr. Barbara O. Schneeman, director of the Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling and Dietary Supplements at the agency, said she has given up predicting a date for even the first step in the process: an announcement of the agency's intention to propose new rules.

"Our hope is by the end of the year," she said. "People are well intentioned, but there are a number of steps of review."

No matter how many changes are made on the nutrition facts panel, Dr. Schneeman said, they will not improve the country's health profile. "The panel is a tool for people to use," she said. "It is not education by itself, but provides information for consumers to use. Don't expect the label on its own merits to prevent or cause a health problem."

Dr. Goldberg of Tufts says the nutrition facts panel could be more helpful if people really knew how to use it. "There never has been a program for the American public to educate people how to use the food label."

Copyright 2004   The New York Times Company

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